Hardin's Myth of the Commons: The Tragedy of Conceptual Confusions. With Appendix: Diagrams of Forms of Co-ownership

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"In 1968 Hardin made the claim that the 'commons' as a form of property ownership resulted in environmental destruction and degradation. He proposed the thought experiment of a pasture open to all. Each herdsman would try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons as he reaps the whole profit from the sale of his animal while the costs are spread among all those using the pasture. "Unfortunately, Hardin's argument is sociologically naive. He ignores the emergent and self-regulating nature of social organizations in response to such challenges, as in the example of stinting (also see McCay and Acheson, eds. 1987; National Resource Council 1986; Berkes 1989). Furthermore, his argument is historically uninformed. Commons of pasturage, as well as other commons, are in fact a form of private property (see Hoskins 1963:4; Dahlman 1980:23). And use of the pasturage, it has been claimed, was limited to each individual by the size of his arable holdings (Lord Ernie 1968:297, quoted in Dahlman 1980:23). "Hardin's argument is also jurally indefensible and logically inconsistent as he ignores the actual locus of ownership of the various rights. He does not enquire what social entity holds the usufructuary rights and what social entity owns the residual rights. And he includes in his class of 'commons' such diverse forms of property rights and open access resources as free parking during the Christmas rush, the leasing of grazing rights in national forests, the resources of the oceans, the national parks, pollution of air, water, population growth (Hardin 1968), insurance, data banks, etc. (Hardin 1977). "Finally, he is just plain wrong when he concludes that private property or state management are the only solutions. He writes that while private property plus inheritance is unjust, 'The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin' (Hardin 1968:1247). Subsequent critics have provided empirical evidence to demonstrate that these conclusions were ill-informed (see McCay and Acheson, eds. 1987; Berkes 1989; National Resource Council 1986). Originally Hardin (1968) failed to define what he meant by the 'commons' except by the examples he gave. Then in 1977 Hardin (1977:47) wrote that the idea of the commons is that 'whatever is owned by many people should be free for the taking of anyone who feels a need for it.' But the corporation would seem to gainsay this position."
tragedy of the commons